Kos – Archaeological Gem under a Veneer of Tacky Tourism

One thing I’ve learned on our travels is that just because I’ve never heard of a place doesn’t mean it’s not a tourist haven.  Kos island in Greece is one of those places – off the beaten track for US and Canadian visitors – but with direct flights from Germany and the UK it’s full of tacky beach front hotels, waterfront restaurants, and cheap souvenirs.

Kos waterfront
Kos waterfront

But after scratching the surface a little, turning a blind eye to the unappealing architecture and crowded streets, eating a few streets back from the waterfront, we found the place to be filled with friendly, genuine people, great food, and archaeological gems.

Our hotel was a family run place a little out of the main area.  It was in a neighborhood filled with empty storefronts (the effects of the recession are still widely apparent in this part of Greece; nearby Rhodes has more half built construction than any area I’ve ever seen), neighborhood stores, crumbling sidewalks (if there were sidewalks) and loads of cats.  Well stray cats can be found just about everywhere in Greece – but there seemed to be even more than usual in Kos.  The hotel was a meeting point for the family – and there were often three generations in the lobby / terrace watching TV, chatting, and just hanging out.

The town was laced with bike lanes; the bike lanes were filled with tourists on bikes.  Much of Kos Town is flat, but we did see a few (out of shape) cyclists try to tackle the trek to Ancient Pyla – and were rewarded with a scooter assist.  That’s when a local person on a scooter slows down and lets you grab their seat so that they can pretty much drag you up a steep hill.

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Kos Town is dotted with archaeological sites.  The only one in town that charged an entrance fee was the Kos Castle  – a Knights of St. John Castle set at the tip of the harbor to guard the straights that run between Kos and Bodrum, Turkey.  Bodrum has a similar castle, as did Rhodes – several hours to the south.  These are the same knights that had to flee to Malta when the Ottomans conquered the area.  The Knights were only in the area from around 1337 to 1523, but their castles left a lasting impression.  One unfortunate thing about the knights is that they took building stone from nearby areas (important historic sites) to build their castles.For that reason many of the older Greek sites in the town – albeit brought down by earthquakes – were missing important bits and pieces when they were reconstructed by the Italians in the early 20th century.

Kos Town was originally planned under theories of town planning proposed by Hippodamus of Miletus – thought to be the first urban planner.  Hippodamus felt that the ideal town should consist of around 50,000 people (10,000 free men and assorted women, children, and slaves) with streets arranged in a grid pattern, have large central areas, and contain neighborhood blocks of 2400 meters squared.  The original town was toppled by many earthquakes, built over, scavenged by the Knights, built over again, until an earthquake in the 1930s toppled a later town exposing many of the ancient ruins.  Rather than rebuilding the entire town, many of the major Ancient Greek sites were excavated.  Unfortunately along with free admission is a lack of much useful information at the sites.

Ancient main street
Ancient main street

Kos was also the birthplace of Hippocrates – the father of modern medicine.  The current town boasts of a Plane Tree where it is said that Hippocrates would give lectures to his students.  It is a nice old tree, but since Hippocrates was alive in the 5th Century BC – well …

Hippocrate's Plane Tree is old ...
Hippocrate’s Plane Tree is old …

About 3 kilometers outside of Kos Town was an Asclepeion, or ancient healing center – that was enormous.  It was a three story healing center set up based on Hippocrates’s teachings.  Much of the site was restored (recreated since the Knights took a lot of the building stones for their castle) in the early 20th century when the island was occupied by the Italians.

Another interesting site was Ancient Pyla and the hilltop castle.  This middle-aged settlement was located along the spine of the mountains that runs down the island.

Of course we mainly went to Kos because it’s a volcanic island, and provided easy access to  nearby Nisyros, which contains an active crater, full of bubbling mud pits and sulphur spotted fumaroles.

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